‘The Industry Will Only Change with a Gun at Its Head’: An Interview with Fashion Designer Katharine Hamnett

As catwalk season begins, the activist behind the original slogan t-shirt says that sustainability must no longer be optional

At the top of the stairs in Katharine Hamnett’s east London studio, visitors are confronted with a rack of black and white t-shirts bearing slogans in enormous block lettering. ‘Cancel Brexit’, ‘Choose Love’, ‘Global Green New Deal Now’. In 1984, the designer made headlines by shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher during a reception at 10 Downing Street wearing a t-shirt dress that read ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’, in reference to the stationing of US nuclear missiles across western Europe. (The Iron Lady’s response: ‘We haven’t got Pershing here. We’ve got Cruise. So maybe you’re at the wrong party.’) Wildly popular and widely copied through the 1980s, Hamnett can be justly credited with launching the activist tee. (Maria Grazia Chiuri’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ iteration for Dior S/S 2017, eat your heart out). At the end of that decade, after commissioning a report that revealed the horrifying environmental and human cost of cotton production, Hamnett dedicated herself to finding ethical, ecological alternatives and to calling out ongoing abuses in the fashion industry. Her A/W 1989 collection was titled ‘Clean Up or Die’. When she relaunched her eponymous label, to much acclaim, in 2017, it was with a small collection using only materials from sustainable sources (scrupulously detailed on her website). Yet, in the 40 years since 1989, little has changed. In fact, by many metrics, the situation has exponentially deteriorated. What power – or will – does the industry have to make good on her demand, as another t-shirt reads, for ‘No More Fashion Victims’?  

AS You have had your own label since graduating from Central St Martin’s in the late 1960s, but you became known to the general public when you started making your slogan t-shirts in the ’80s. 

KH I launched my own brand in 1979 and it grew very quickly. We were very lucky: we sold in a lot of shops, we were getting great publicity and there was more demand for the clothes than we could even manufacture. I thought, let’s do something clever with that; let’s make giant t-shirts with messages writ so large that you could see them from 200 metres on ethical and environmental issues that needed tending to.

Katharine Hamnett: Courtesy: William Pine

AS Which was the first?

KH ‘Choose Life.’ It was inspired by a Buddhist exhibition organized by Lynne Franks. [The publicist the 1990s television sitcom Absolutely Fabulous was based on.] We were a bit of a unit at that time.

AS That was the one George Michael wore in the video for ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ [1984].

KH Yes. Somebody wore it on Top of the Pops [a British music television show that ran from 1964–2006] and, the next week, everyone was in one. Then I made some saying ‘US Go Home’ [to protest the US Cruise missiles at the Greenham Common UK airbase]. Our usual retailers wouldn’t take them, so Lynne and I took about 100 of them to the women’s peace camp down there in her enormous white Mercedes and tried to give them away. At first the women thought there was a catch, but slowly they came around to the idea. As evening came, they joined hands to form a ring around the perimeter fence, all wearing these t-shirts, and started singing laments. It was incredible. All of the soldiers came out, inside the fence, and just stood there. The hairs on my arm were on end.

AS Was it a realization of the power of the platform that fashion can give you?

KH I think, for me, it’s always been about free speech. I always push up to the boundary of that. And sometimes I find myself on the wrong side. You need to push the boundaries, otherwise they start to shrink.

With those t-shirts, it was about putting ideas into people’s heads. You can’t not read the slogans. You have no defences. What Cambridge Analytica et al. have been doing on social media, I was doing first!

AS When did you become aware of the environmental cost of the fashion industry and of your own production processes?

KH In 1989. I wanted to check that we were in line with Right Livelihood, which is one part of the Buddhist teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path.

AS Are you a practicing Buddhist?

KH No, I’m a crap Buddhist. But I do think it’s the most sensible philosophy. In 1989, I started to do some research and I was horrified to learn that cotton production uses more pesticides than any other form of agriculture and that it was responsible for at least 10,000 deaths a year from accidental poisoning, as well as desertification and all the rest of it. I love cotton. It’s one of my favourite fibres. It’s unbelievably versatile and it’s great to wear. My immediate reaction was that we must all change to organic cotton immediately. I thought everybody would think the same. But, hello, welcome to the real world.

Katharine Hamnett ad. Courtesy: Peter Lindbergh

AS But you never stopped making clothes?

KH No. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, I had a ready to wear line, though I was more focused on making t-shirts. I thought the campaigning was important to maintain. I had a voice, I had a platform and I thought there were things that needed to be said that weren’t being said.

AS You never thought: the industry is so toxic and damaging that I cannot longer ethically participate?

KH I cleaned up our production processes. We make the t-shirts using organic cotton in one of the best factories in India, which provides water treatment, housing, schools and social support for its employees. I make stuff that is as good at it is possible to make. It can be done. We’ve got a collection that covers a wide range of different materials: fabrics, wools, mohairs, recycled cashmere ... Our puffer jackets are made from 100 percent recycled polyester and recycled down.

We need to change our laws because, currently, the way that garment workers are treated outside of Europe is completely untenable. I am proposing legislation that would say all goods imported into the EU must be manufactured to the same standards outside that are mandatory inside. The EU (let’s hope with the UK as part of it) is the biggest, richest trading block in the world: they could exert huge pressure on industries to clean up. I want to start making a noise about it because any legislation will take a while to pass and we need to at least put the notion in people’s heads.

AS What about the argument that consumers within the EU would be forced to pay more for clothes, which not everyone can afford?

KH Clothes cost too little. It’s better that we buy less. Although, I’m challenging Extinction Rebellion’s notion that we shouldn’t buy any new clothes because, in fact, organic cotton agriculture is a carbon sink, pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere and keeping it on the ground. I think Extinction Rebellion are brilliant, it’s great what they’ve done, but I don’t agree with them on this one.

Katharine Hamnett ‘Choose Love’ group shoot. Courtesy: William Pine

AS What do you think about their recent calls to cancel fashion week?

KH I think we’ve got to be looking at live streaming and other ways to broadcast runway shows, because we can’t justify flying the whole fashion world to however many cities globally twice a year. We just can’t. It’s not enough to talk the talk: we have to walk the walk.

AS What about the notion that seasonal fashion itself is unsustainable? When you relaunched in 2017, it was with a small collection of key pieces – many of them archival items from the 1980s – that are wardrobe staples and can be worn again and again from one year to the next.

KH Well, it’s always been insane. It’s a kind of Alice through the Looking Glass piece of madness. I like garments that you can wear to anything.

AS The problem is that the economic model of the industry is so far away from that. Designers are under constant pressure for the new, and the big high-street retailers have a vested interest in selling you three outfits rather than one, all of which fall apart within a year.

KH Planned obsolescence. It’s a huge problem. Even at the top end – Balenciaga, where are their clothes made? Had I known what I know now, I would never have gone into this racket, but now I’m up to my neck in it …

Katharine Hamnett SS18 Collection. Courtesy: William Pine

AS You can’t extricate yourself now! You have to fight the fight!

KH I’ve been invited to speak at the UN on sustainability.

AS That reflects a shift – which has to be a good thing – in the general perception of these issues. 

KH I do think that people have begun to wake up. But, in terms of fashion, consumers need help from legislation. I think the industry will only change with a gun at its head. It’s going to fucking have to. 

Everybody wants to be perceived as sustainable, of course. The amount of greenwashing going on in fashion – it makes you want to vomit. But we’re being approached by various companies to help them improve their processes and supply chains. It’s very exciting that people would even contemplate working with me because, frankly, I’ve always been considered too hot to handle on the political front. 

Katharine Hamnett will be in conversation with Nancy Diniz, Architect + Course Leader, MA Biodesign, Central Saint Martins, on Tuesday 10 September as part of Frieze Academy’s ‘Sustainable Thinking: An Evening of Talks’at ME London. Tickets available here.

Main image: Katharine Hamnett in Mali with the BBC for Oxfam. Courtesy: Michael Dunlea

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London, UK.

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